The Clarinet Section Needs to Play Louder (Janet's Blog)

(08-17-10) I just finished teaching a two-week (five hour a day) course in public policy and the arts to 10 very bright non-trad students getting their Masters of Arts in Arts Administration from Goucher College, Baltimore. This, combined with the fact that I’m watching syndicated re-runs of “The West Wing” and I just met with Jonathan Katz at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) and Bob Lynch at Americans for the Arts (AFTA), has created the perfect storm for thinking (or over-thinking) about our advocacy efforts in the arts.We need to engage in battle. Not the battles with armor, tanks and explosives but the battles of public will, perception and policy. We have come such a long way in the past twenty-five years, since the culture wars. We actually have a national advocate in Americans for the Arts (AFTA) whose governmental affairs department works diligently to develop and maintain relationships with decision-makers from the White House to the Hill. AFTA and NASAA were instrumental in creating the Arts Working Group in the mid 90s that brings together national arts service organizations to give one voice to the nonprofit sector. This is all good but with some help from the home front and engagement by our troops on the ground, we could do better.

(When I was a lobbyist, these war metaphors always struck me as ironic but they are so applicable. Plus I like the idea of talking a little tougher about how we approach the issue of changing public will and public policy.)

In my class, I teach students to be active advocates, to engage with government and to change public policy. Most enter the class worried that they know nothing about government or don’t care. All leave, hopefully, empowered to face down that city council person, school board member, legislator or congressman. They also understand that the language we speak and issues we deal with inside the arts community are not always effective in their roles as advocates. They learn that government actually has values like efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and fairness. They build their arguments for the arts around those values.

We need more outspoken and effective advocates for the arts. GIA’s Arts Funding Snapshot which includes information from NASAA and analysis by Holly Sidford to appear in the fall Reader, reports that state arts agencies have an aggregate loss in funding of 25% over the past three years. Minnesota, notwithstanding, this leaves a tremendous gap nationally, particularly for small and/or rural organizations and ethnically specific groups. The Minnesota State Arts Board received a $20 million increase in 2011 due to an initiative that created a new revenue stream for the arts. The arts community including private and public funders and grantees joined with environmentalists, historic preservationists and other groups to change the Minnesota constitution and enable this increase in the sales tax. This is a story Vickie Benson, president of GIA and arts program director for the McKnight Foundation, will tell at the GIA conference this fall.

Here’s a few things we can do:

1) Join the fight and become more educated in advocacy work and policy development. The Alliance for Justice (AFJ) along with past GIA president Penny McPhee, the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, will present a session at the GIA conference on supporting advocacy efforts. The Alliance’s website is full of helpful information for nonprofit organizations and private foundations. I sometimes make the case that our colleagues working in environment, health, social services and education have a step up on arts folks because they come with college degrees in public administration, political science or community organizing and our people come from the clarinet section. (I mean no ill will toward clarinet players and always envied them as I marched with my baritone horn.) But you get the picture. This is work that we are not used to and are not taught. Changing how people think about the arts is not why we got into the work to begin with but it is the task we have been given.

2) Support local, state and national advocacy groups. Most local and county arts agencies are involved in public policy all the time. Their work is on the very ground level with everything from arts education to public art. They are so important to our artists and communities. State arts agencies are in trouble. Unfortunately, not every state has a viable arts advocacy organization. For the most part, it’s because they can’t sustain a staff and an organizational budget and we haven’t created any models that are truly grassroots without professional staff (although there is a certain New England state looking to do this.) The same applies to Alliances for Arts Education, part of the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network. Some are highly successful while others are kitchen table operations at best. These statewide groups need leadership assistance and financial support. As individuals, we can all join the Arts Action Fund of Americans for the Arts. AFTA’s goal for the Action Fund (which is FREE) is one million members. One million members make us a force with which to be reckoned. When you think about lobbying clout, think AARP. Currently the Arts Action Fund has about 350,000 members.It's a start and we can do better.

3) Be a constant and consistent arts advocate who understands the arts are part of a greater community so we must be zealous but not zealots.

4) Understand that public policy influences almost everything we do from organizational incorporation to sales tax to donations to the parking spaces outside our building. Elected officials carry massive persuasive power and most are attempting to do good work. Engaging in civic discourse is our responsibility but advocating for the arts is our passion.The clarinet section needs to play louder.